Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lord of Illusions

Year 3, Day 274 - 10/1/11 - Movie #987

BEFORE: Seeing James Gammon always reminds me of his role as the Indians coach in "Major League" - so lets link from him to his co-star in that film, Corbin Bernsen, who was also in the sequel "Major League: Back to the Minors" with Scott Bakula (last seen in "The Informant!") and kick off Shocktoberfest with this film about a cult leader.

THE PLOT: During a routine case in L.A., NY private investigator Harry D'Amour stumbles over members of a fanatic cult, who are waiting for the resurrection of their leader Nix.

AFTER: It's even harder to take this one at face value than it was with "The Cell" - I'm expected to believe that magic is real, that a man can be resurrected after being buried for 13 years, and a whole lot more.

But yet certain points remain unclear - was Nix an insane man, a god, a demon, or just a magician? Sorry, illusionist... Some of the magic in this film turns out to be achieved by really simple methods (holograms? really?) and some of it is never explained, like those wacky floating triangles that seem like they'd be more at home in a horror film from the go-go 1970's.

And it's tough to carry on serious P.I. work when people around you are levitating and shooting fire from their hands. Walking away from a four-story drop, and surviving 13 years underground seem pretty inexplicable too - unless some other forms of trickery are involved. But that's why Bakula's character, Harry D'Amour, seems so cool - he's known for getting involved in these supernatural cases - notice how the job that brought him to L.A. gets pretty much abandoned as soon as he gets a whiff of some occult goings-on.

To the people who joined the cult, both in the flashback sequences and the present-day ones: what did you THINK was going to happen? Did you join the death cult just for the snacks? Thursday Bingo night?

The idea of an illusionist's trick going wrong on stage is a good one, though - and the idea of there being more to that than meets the eye is another good one. But some of the ideas connected to that are even more far-fetched than a man with real magical powers. That's all I'll say without spoilers. And that people with no eyebrows look creepy.

Also starring Famke Janssen (last seen in "I Spy"), Kevin J. O'Connor (last seen in "There Will Be Blood"), Daniel Van Bargen (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), with a cameo from Vincent Schiavelli (last seen in "The Frisco Kid").

RATING: 3 out of 10 tattoos

SPOOK-O-METER: 7 out of 10. Fairly high due to graphic demonic imagery, a few brutal deaths, and some tripped-out dream sequences.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Cell

Year 3, Day 273 - 9/30/11 - Movie #986

BEFORE: From a sociopath to a psychopath, and yes, there is a difference... Linking from "Falling Down", Robert Duvall was in "Kicking & Screaming" with Will Ferrell, who was in at least three films ("Old School", "Wedding Crashers", "Anchorman", take your pick) with Vince Vaughn (last seen in "Couples Retreat").

THE PLOT: An FBI agent persuades a social worker to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim.

AFTER: I'm really split down the middle on this one - because the idea is so wildly inventive, but also very impossible. (Although, there was something in the news the other day about people's dream waves being turned into video, so who knows...) Plus it's thrilling, but also disturbing. Exciting, but scary.

This is a bit like "Silence of the Lambs" (race to find the kidnapped girl), mixed with the Black Lodge sequences from "Twin Peaks" (which also featured a killer singing "Mairzy Doats", oddly enough) with a bit of the dreamscape from "What Dreams May Come".

I've got great respect for Vincent D'Onofrio (last seen in "Impostor"), who plays the psycho-killer here. I'm currently watching the last season of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent", which might be some of his best work. "Full Metal Jacket", "Men in Black", plus he's played Orson Welles a couple times, and I have to respect that - he seems like a real actor's actor.

I actually failed watching this in the early a.m., and I fell asleep just as the film was getting good, when we get to see the inside of the killer's mind for the first time. When that happens, I bring the DVD to work with me, and I finished it after closing time. Considering the disturbing imagery, it's probably better that I didn't see some of that stuff right before bedtime.

Plus there's some stuff here that isn't really explained - what were those weird towels with the microcircuitry that they had to put on their faces? How did those things help with the process? And why did they have to be suspended by wires? Falling asleep in a bed or on a table wouldn't work?

I'm kicking off the October horror movies a day early, but that's OK - it will all work out in the end, and I should bring this baby in right on time with movie #1000.

Also starring Jennifer Lopez (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Dylan Baker (last seen in "Kinsey"), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (last seen in "Spy Game"), Jake Weber (last seen in "Meet Joe Black", here playing a cop named Gordon Ramsey, odd...), with a cameo from James Gammon (last seen in an uncredited role in "Cool Hand Luke").

RATING: 5 out of 10 staircases

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Falling Down

Year 3, Day 272 - 9/29/11 - Movie #985

BEFORE: Good news, I got the Turner Classic Movies channel back - it was weird, I was only missing that channel and the IFC Channel (now with ads, so it got removed from my rotation). So I missed "Spartacus", but I got "All Quiet on the Western Front". Why couldn't the damn Lifetime channel be knocked out?

Wrapping up Michael Douglas chain tonight - my wife recommended this movie, so it's been on the list as long as there's BEEN a list.

THE PLOT: An unemployed defense worker frustrated with the various flaws he sees in society, begins to psychotically and violently lash out against them.

AFTER: This is a tough one, because I want to sympathize with a guy who's been beaten down by the system, having a tough go of things in his personal life, and annoyed by all sorts of life's, annoyances. Certainly I've had my share of run-ins with people who cut in line at the deli, or are "loud-talkers", or who over-use the word "actually", to the point where I just want to strangle them.

But you know what? I don't strangle them. I leave most people alone, except for those who insist on shoveling snow from their sidewalk into the street - when the plow just finished getting it OUT of the street. But I digress. I got myself an iPhone and some headphones, so if people are talking stupid on the subway, or discussing the endings of movies I haven't seen, I plug in. I probably turn the volume up too loud, so I'm probably annoying other people in the process, which is somewhat ironic.

Sorry, we're here to talk about the film, not me. Michael Douglas's character ditches his car in the middle of a traffic jam, and heads for "home". Home, in this case, is his ex-wife's house and his daughter's birthday party. There's apparently trouble at the end of that road, since he's essentially stalking his ex - but he encounters even more trouble along the way, walking through L.A.'s gangland.

He loses it in a convenience store, he loses it in a burger joint (spot the pattern?) and acquires a duffel bag full of guns - nope, I don't see how this could possibly end well. These actions are intercut with scenes from a veteran cop's last day (oops, another movie cliché that usually doesn't end well) and from what we know about parallel editing, these two storylines are destined to collide with each other.

Part of us wants to root for the crazy guy, because he's been kicked around and downtrodden, and haven't we all? But we should be rooting for the cop, even though he's a bit of a screw-up (well, he MEANS well), he's got one last chance to end his career on a high note and do some respectable detective work.

It's tough (and a little questionable) to have a central character who's this much of an anti-hero - "Law Abiding Citizen" had to work around the same bugaboo - but let's call him what he is. He's a terrorist, as much as McVeigh or the Unabomber was - the scene where he shoots up the WhammyBurger pretty much settles the deal.

We've seen it happen in the news - and we wonder how it happens. Maybe the better question is, why doesn't it happen more often? I haven't heard of a postal worker losing it in quite a while, and we even named the process "going postal" in honor of them. What changed at the post office to make it a less hostile working environment?

What's the other thing you hear when people go off their nut like this? "He was a quiet guy, kept pretty much to himself, never caused any trouble..." Why don't you ever hear people interviewed after someone snaps, saying things like, "Yeah, that guy was wound way too tight, gave everybody grief. We always knew he'd explode, so we just tried to stay out of his way."?

"It's always the quiet ones you have to watch out for." You've heard that, right? It that because the loud, dangerous ones are already locked up? Or does it say more about the kind of person who bottles up everything inside and doesn't have some kind of strategic release for their emotions?

If so, I urge you, find a release - write letters to the editor, pop some bubble wrap, spend some time at the shooting range, whatever it takes.

My main issues with the film are the inherit racist and homophobic acts - I realize it's a fine line, how do you depict these biases without the film itself becoming racist or homophobic?

Also starring Robert Duvall (last seen in "John Q"), Barbara Hershey (last seen in "The Right Stuff"), Rachel Ticotin (last seen in "Turbulence"), Tuesday Weld (last seen in "Thief").

RATING: 4 out of 10 payphones

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Ghost and the Darkness

Year 3, Day 271 - 9/28/11 - Movie #984

BEFORE: From the urban jungle of Wall Street to a different kind of jungle. OK, so it's set on the African savannah, technically not a jungle, but you get the idea.

I tried to add the film "Spartacus" to my list last night, starring Michael's father, Kirk Douglas, but the DVR wouldn't record it - for some reason Turner Classic Movies wasn't working, I got 3 1/2 hours of a blank screen. Thanks, T.W. Cable! I guess the movie gods don't want that film on my list at this time, though I consider it one of the more egregious omissions from my life-list.

THE PLOT: Set in 1898, this movie is based on the true story of two lions in Africa that killed 130 people over a nine month period, while a bridge engineer and an experienced old hunter tried to kill them.

AFTER: This seems like the kind of movie that would have been made in response to "Out of Africa" winning the Best Picture Oscar - but it was released 11 years later so that theory doesn't really hold up. But it is sort of like "Out of Africa" without the romance, plus some of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" minus the war story. Plus add two hungry lions for good measure. So it's really more like "Jaws" without the ocean.

Michael Douglas plays a game-hunter here, brought in to help a group of bridge-builders (literal ones, not figurative) who are being menaced by lions. Or taken another way, it's the story of two plucky lions struggling to survive in the wilderness, and all they have to eat are a bunch of stringy, non-meaty African rail-workers. Your call.

I'm trying to get to some larger meaning here, but it's tough. Something about colonial Imperialism in the late 1800's, or man vs. nature. Man vs. his inner demons? Could the lions represent something more than a pair of giant man-eating felines? Tough to say. Maybe there's nothing more going on under the surface, and the best way to sum it up is to say "Somedays you eat the lion, and somedays the lion eats you." Why, thanks, mysterious mustached cowboy at the bowling alley bar! Much obliged.

My BFF Andy was in town last night, and we had a conversation about visual effects - how you sometimes can't tell these days what's an FX shot and what isn't. These days it's cheaper to build a CGI city to get the buildings looking just the way you want them then it is to wait 2 days for the right weather conditions. But since this film was released in 1996 it seems more like the opposite is true here - IMDB is telling me that 99% of the scenes used real lions, except for one sequence that used animatronics (from the great Stan Winston). However, given the level of danger involved, even working with trained lions, I suspect that there were a few CGI or post-FX lion shots (Digital Domain's presence in the credits is a bit of a giveaway) - show me the stuntman willing to have a lion pounce on him...

NITPICK POINT: The lead character seems to know a great deal about African wildlife, odd facts about giraffes and hippos. So why doesn't he know that a lion can climb a damn tree?

Also starring Val Kilmer (last seen in "The Missing"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "The Name of the Father"), Emily Mortimer, Bernard Hill (last seen in "The Scorpion King"), and John Kani (shocked to learn that wasn't Djimon Hounsou - but no, his big break came in "Amistad", released 1 year later)

RATING: 3 out of 10 girders

Monday, September 26, 2011

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Year 3, Day 270 - 9/27/11 - Movie #983

BEFORE: What started out as a Michael Douglas chain has rapidly turned into a treatise on questionable morals - and I expect that trend to continue tonight.

THE PLOT: Now out of prison but still disgraced by his peers, Gordon Gekko works his future son-in-law, an idealistic stock broker, when he sees an opportunity to take down a Wall Street enemy and rebuild his empire.

AFTER: It's an updated look at what goes on behind the scenes at financial trading companies, but even with all I've read in the news, it's a world that I know very little about. There are nods here to the collapses of top financial firms just a couple years ago, prompted by credit swaps, leveraging (still not sure what that is), and plain old greed. I'm not sure, but some of that stuff feels a little tacked on here, not just as a take on current events, but as a way of injecting some morality and blame for our double-dip recession.

But as a movie, it's all about consistency - or at least, it should be. Oh, characters can change over the course of time, but it has to be warranted and justified. For Gordon Gekko to say "Greed is good" in the original film, then spend a few years in prison and then warn of impending fiscal collapse, it seems like the character might have undergone a genuine epiphany, and not just because we know that he's right. But then to have him turn around and go back to his own ways, it seems like an inconsistent message - greed was good, then greed was bad, now it's good again?

Unless that's really who he is, underneath it all, a cold-hearted snake. If so, then that is a form of consistency, however disappointing it may be. Just when we think he might have learned something and seen the error in his ways, he reverts to form. Does he really believe that time is actually the greatest commodity, or is that just more lip service?

There are plenty of other inconsistencies as well - spreading false rumors about another company is bad. Unless a good character does it, which makes it OK? He's only doing it for revenge, not profit - is that bad, or good? Come on, movie, be consistent!

Some of the plot here also deals with types of energy investment - and our hero pitches a new clean form of fusion, so that's good, right? Or wait, isn't solar the good one? But is he pitching it because it's green (clean), or because it's green (profitable)? Yes. So why does everyone else in the movie still interested in off-shore drilling? Didn't they get the memo?

The film is set in 2008, so one has to wonder about the effect of two more recent events - 1) the BP oil spill, and its effect on the marketplace, and 2) the collapse of Solyndra, a solar firm that was central to the president's new energy plan, but seems to have gone the way of Enron.

But really, this film is not about energy - they could have just as easily be trading shares in a car company, food company, or a widget company. It's about getting revenge while getting back on top. Gekko also tries to re-connect with his daughter through her fiancé, who he (sort of) takes under his wing. Or was he playing him too?

I'm not sure this did much more than continue the original story - it's hard to say for sure if it advanced it much, though.

NITPICK POINT: OK, I can see how someone might mispronounce the word "piranha" - and I was also bothered by a character mispronouncing "Antarctica" by leaving out the first "C". It's wrong, but a lot of people say it that way. But who mispronounces the word "Satan"? Someone in this film said it like "satin", and that's just weird.

Also starring Shia LaBeouf (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), Carey Mulligan (last seen in "Public Enemies"), Josh Brolin (last seen in "True Grit"), Frank Langella (last seen in "The Ninth Gate"), Eli Wallach (last seen in "The Misfits"), Susan Sarandon (last seen in "The Lovely Bones"), Austin Pendleton, with cameos from Charlie Sheen (last seen in "The Rookie"), Sylvia Miles, Warren Buffett, Graydon Carter, Maria Bartiromo.

RATING: 3 out of 10 bottles of champagne

The Star Chamber

Year 3, Day 269 - 9/26/11 - Movie #982

BEFORE: Michael Douglas carries over, as does the theme of fighting crime inside and outside the system. Though I've watched a bunch of legal films, my main source of legal knowledge is still "Law & Order" - though less so since they cancelled 3 of the 4 shows in the franchise.

Thanks to that, and a few other cancellations ("Smallville", "Rescue Me"), I'm down to just 13 hours of network TV per week - that's what I save to VHS to watch later, since I'm 4 months behind. Part of my job is scanning through TV shows, but what I scan through is much greater than what I watch in real time. I vowed last season, and again this season, to not pick up any new shows until some more of my favorites finish their runs, or until I finish the movie project.

I'm down to: the 3 CSI's, Law & Order: SVU, The Amazing Race, the Fox Sunday animation line-up, the NBC Thursday comedy line-up, and Kitchen Nightmares. In the second tier is any competition show that involves cooking (Top Chef, Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, Chopped, Cupcake Wars), singing (American Idol, America's Got Talent, maybe X-Factor), or shooting (Top Shot). Then in the 3rd tier are shows like Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters, Shark Tank, Wipeout, Bizarre Foods, Man vs. Food, Restaurant: Impossible, and a few cartoons like Futurama and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Yeah, it seems like a lot. It's hard to believe, but I have cut back.

This season's new shows look like another bunch of crap - I've got no interest in more procedurals like Unforgettable or Person of Interest, or the new "comedies" like Free Agents or Last Man Standing. And do we need TWO different shows, Grimm and Once Upon a Time, riffing off fairy tales? Surprisingly, I've also got no interest in the new show involving time travel (Terra Nova) or the one about stewardesses (Pan Am), or even the one about Playboy bunnies. Plus, the new Charlie's Angels doesn't even look that hot - it looks like they took all the sexy out of it, after Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu worked so hard putting it back in...

THE PLOT: Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.

AFTER: Wow, you know the legal system is broken when even the judges don't think that justice is being served. What year was this made - 1983? Does that coincide with the start of the Libertarian Party, or something? Reagan was president back then - weren't we as a country getting tougher on crime?

Michael Douglas plays a judge (really?) who is forced by the letter of the law to dismiss some high-profile cases, which causes him to lose faith in the system. Funny, I thought that a judge could rule however he wanted - isn't that the point of a trial? But here he feels that if he were to continue the case, his decision would only get overturned on appeal, so what's the point of continuing?

Hell, by that reasoning, what's the point of doing anything? Why put criminals in jail? They're only going to learn better criminal techniques from the other convicts, and go right back to crime when they get out. Why arrest anyone, if their lawyers are going to plead their cases, and maybe get them off the hook.

My point is, some of the logic in the film seems a bit flawed. The gathering of judges who decide to review these old cases, where guilty people CLEARLY got away with murder, seeks to balance the scales - but perhaps they never heard that old saw about two wrongs not making a right. (But three rights make a left - think about it...)

The problem is, they only review the cold, hard facts of the case - and since they've got a hitman on retainer, they're maybe a little too eager to declare people guilty, and deserving of vigilante justice. Or they're just doing it to feel like they're making a difference - in which case action's going to feel better than inaction, and that's probably affecting their decisions as well.

Hey, remember that time we all got together and had that guy executed - but it turned out he didn't kill anyone, it was just a mistake? Hi-LAR-ious! Yeah, not so much.

Also starring Hal Holbrook (last seen in "Magnum Force"), Yaphet Kotto (last seen in "The Thomas Crown Affair"), Sharon Gless (last seen in "Airport 1975"), James Sikking (last seen in "The Electric Horseman"), Joe Regalbuto, with cameos from character actors Larry Hankin (last seen in "Armed and Dangerous"), Jack Kehoe, David Proval (later played Richie Aprile on "The Sopranos") and also Otis Day (from "Animal House").

RATING: 4 out of 10 class photos

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Black Rain

Year 3, Day 268 - 9/25/11 - Movie #981

BEFORE: Back refreshed after a week's break, ready to watch the last few films of the year. I did a lot in the last week, went to a beer festival and a beer dinner as part of NYC Craft Beer Week, took my boss out for a belated birthday dinner, started reading a book (you know, those paper things we used to read before DVDs came around), bagged up some comic books, and got caught up on some TV (still 4 months behind, though, and about to reach last season's finales on some of my shows). But I got a taste of life after this project ends, and I am looking forward to having free time again.

Fortunately I can link thematically from where I left off - "True Grit" was about tracking a criminal through Indian territory, and this one's about tracking a criminal through the Japanese underworld. Plus I can send the Birthday SHOUT-out to Michael Douglas (last seen in "The In-Laws"), born 9/25/1944. And linking actors is easy, too, since Matt Damon was in the "Ocean's Eleven" films with Andy Garcia (last seen in "New York, I Love You"). It's almost like I planned it this way...

THE PLOT: Two New York cops get involved in a gang war between members of the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia.

AFTER: This is a cop film that does for Japan what "Crocodile Dundee" did for Australia. Whatever cultural touchstones Americans are aware of that relate to Japan find a way to show up in the film. See Michael Douglas's character eat sushi! Watch Andy Garcia's character sing karaoke! The investigation manages to swing by the fish market, and the noodle shops - you know, because stereotypes are really just big time-savers, after all. All Japanese criminals ride Suzuki motorcycles and know how to wield Samurai swords, it turns out.

Maybe I just had a little trouble finding my rhythm again, but I found some of the police work hard to follow - you know, the investigating that gets them from place to place. It's great that you could track the Japanese crimelords down, now how about telling the audience how you did it? Then again, I did doze off once or twice (not a good sign for an action film) so maybe I missed something. I did rewind (do we still say "rewind" relating to a DVD?) but you never know.

NITPICK POINT: The American cop, even in plain-clothes, sticks out like a sore thumb in the streets of Japan. Maybe he's not the best person to be tailing someone through the city...

NITPICK POINT #2: The title refers to the weather after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I can see how this might have affected the people who were alive at the time, but using it as a justification for why a much younger man is a murderer and thief? I didn't quite get the connection there.

Also starring Kate Capshaw, Ken Takakura (last seen in "Mr. Baseball"), with cameos from John Spencer (last seen in "Presumed Innocent"), Luis Guzman (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Stephen Root (last seen in "Bicentennial Man").

RATING: 5 out of 10 rice fields